As commissioner, Cardona pledges ‘positive impact’ on graduation rate, achievement gap, access to opportunity

As commissioner, Cardona pledges ‘positive impact’ on graduation rate, achievement gap, access to opportunity

reporter photo

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday that he is advancing the nomination of Meriden Assistant Superintendent Miguel Cardona to serve as commissioner of the state Department of Education.  

The move followed a morning vote by the state Board of Education to recommend Cardona to the post.

“Connecticut has the best and most qualified teachers of any state in the nation, and I am incredibly proud of the dedication that the men and women who work in our public schools have made to improving outcomes for our next generation,” Lamont said in prepared remarks. “The ability to attract businesses and encourage them to expand and grow in our state is directly connected to the strength of our workforce, which is why it is critical that we provide the youngest in our communities with the tools needed for today’s 21st century economy.”

Lamont praised Cardona for understanding the challenges faced by the state’s urban areas, “which for too long have been left behind, resulting in a considerable achievement gap between our poorest and most affluent communities.”

“For more than two decades, Dr. Cardona has dedicated his career to the students of Meriden, where he was himself born, raised, and educated,” Lamont said. “I look forward to working with him over the coming years so we can fix some of these inequities...”

‘Collective effort’

Cardona, 44, is currently the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, a position he has held since 2015. In that role, he has been responsible for overseeing the instruction, teaching, leadership development and evaluation, and curriculum for the district’s 9,000 students. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, where he teaches courses on leadership, ranging from school improvement to culture and climate.

“It is an honor to have been nominated to serve in this position, and I am humbled by the opportunity to work with my fellow teachers and leaders on creating the best and most effective educational system,” Cardona said in a prepared statement. “...I believe we can make a positive impact on graduation rates, further close achievement gaps, and ensure that all students have increased access to the opportunities and advantages they need to achieve success in life.”

Cardona earns $160,712 annually as an assistant superintendent. As state commissioner he will earn $192,500. 

Prior to his current position, Cardona served as a Performance Evaluation Specialist with the Meriden Board of Education from 2013 to 2015, and was principal of Hanover Elementary School in Meriden from 2003 to 2013. In 2012, he was named Connecticut’s principal of the year. He began his career in education as a fourth grade teacher.

He has also been involved with a number of professional associations, including as vice president of the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, co-chair of the Connecticut Legislative Achievement Gap Task Force and the Connecticut Early Childhood Birth to Grade Three Leaders, and is a member of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

Menzo also finalist

The State Board of Education considers candidates from among a field of applicants and makes a recommendation to the governor, who then advances the nomination to the General Assembly for its advice and consent. 

In addition to Cardona, Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo and Bloomfield Superintendent James Thompson were also finalists.

“I was honored to be considered for this position with such high quality candidates,” Menzo said in an-email Thursday. “Knowing Dr. Cardona's work in Meriden, I am confident he will do an amazing job.”

Cardona will begin serving as commissioner-designate on Aug. 7.

Cardona’s nomination was clouded by the elimination of Thompson, who was promised the job by Gov. Ned Lamont. Thompson’s consideration ended when negotiations with the governor’s office broke down, according to The Connecticut Mirror. 

 State Education Board members voted 6-1 to recommend Cardona, with the dissenter protesting the way the process was handled, according to the Mirror. 

State Education Board member Erin Benham said the board collects all applications and reviews them carefully with the governor’s office which is very involved in the process. Benham is also the former president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, and worked closely with Cardona during both their teaching careers.

“As a board member that has to remain completely separate,” Benham said Thursday. “We don’t promote a certain candidate over others. We were asked for three finalists and that process ended today with the selection of Dr. Cardona.”

Unlike other agencies, the state Department of Education is the only one that requires a board vote before the governor can nominate a designee to the General Assembly. 

The department has operated under two interim directors since Gov. Ned Lamont took office.

Worked with union 

Cardona’s role as Performance Evaluation Specialist from 2013 to 2015 put him in charge of implementing state changes in the way teachers and administrators are evaluated. One change meant eliminating student achievement test scores in teacher and administrative evaluations because they unfairly impacted urban school districts. 

Cardona’s role involved several training conferences sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers. 

 “There was very much a collaboration with the union,” Benham said.  

Meriden Superintendent of Schools Mark Benigni praised Cardona for pursuing his goals. Having the education commissioner come from Meriden with two children in the district is a positive for the school system. 

“I encouraged him,” Benigni said. “I would never hold him back as much as it would be a big loss in Meriden. Clearly having someone who knows all the great work occurring in our district can only be helpful to our district.

Meriden roots

Cardona’s family is well known in Meriden for their involvement in education, police work, music and the community as a whole.  His parents Hector and Sarah Cardona moved to Meriden from Aguada, Puerto Rico when they were young, and instilled a love of Puerto Rican culture and music in their family.

Hector Cardona lived with his family in the Mills Memorial Apartments, a downtown Meriden public housing development, after coming to the city in 1961 and stayed until 1968. He and Sarah taught their children the value of hard work, empathy and respect, said Hector Cardona, a retired Meriden police officer inducted into the city’s Hall of Fame last fall.

Hector Cardona praised his son’s determination in getting his advanced degrees while raising young children. Miguel Cardona is married to Marissa Cardona, who works in the school system’s family-school liaison office. 

“He didn’t want to stop,” Hector Cardona said. “He wanted to continue. It’s tough when you have a family. But he knew it would pay off. It was part of his success.”

The Cardona family heard that Miguel had met with the deputy commissioner and was being considered Monday, and then got word he had received the governor’s recommendation Thursday morning. 

“We’re very happy,” Hector Cardona said. “We were blessed.” 

Cardona attended John Barry and Roger Sherman elementary schools, Washington Middle School and Wilcox Technical High School.

“This is incredible for the city of Meriden and it’s an incredible opportunity for Miguel and his family,” said Robert Kosienski, a longtime Meriden school board member. “They are choosing a man of faith and family, and a man who truly believes in Meriden. We could not ask to be better represented at the state Department of Education.”

Benigni is not posting the assistant superintendent position immediately and will meet with senior administrators for possible restructuring. After some shifting, Benigni will present a plan to the Board of Education. 

“He was heavily involved in the Alliance Grant and supervised principals,” Benigni said. “It’s a large role and some responsibilities could be handled by others. But we really need to look at how we support our education leaders and principals. We need someone to handle that.”
Twitter: @Cconnbiz

In this 2011 file photo, Miguel Cardona, then principal of Hanover School, eats breakfast and talks with third graders Asharia Ray (left) and Dina Hamideh (right) in the school cafeteria . "I enjoy spending time with the students," said Cardona. "This is just a happy place to be."